Even before Congress departed for its August vacation, legislators were giving themselves the royal treatment.
According to Roll Call, the House Appropriations Committee recently tagged $132 million for two elite Gulfstream jets on to the 2010 defense appropriations bill. The jets are specifically meant ferry around in style members of Congress and other key Washington officials. The House has already approved nearly $200 million for three Gulfstream jets, on the lame excuse that this was no earmark but merely an expansion of a current Defense Department program.
Lavish airfare is just one of the latest and most flagrant examples of pork spending run wild in the nation’s capital. In March, for instance, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a $410 billion omnibus spending bill. Tucked into the bill were 8,000 earmarks, spending items inserted by members for pet projects. The profligacy has become so flagrant that in 2009, earmarks rose to $19.6 billion in taxpayer dollars, according to the non-partisan watchdog organization Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).
The feeding frenzy at the federal trough has not gone unnoticed. On July 6,
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok) released a report on pork barrel projects in the stimulus bill that he believed were not only wasteful but actually “harmful” to economic growth. Coburn noted that Earl Devaney, head of the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board estimates that at least $55 billion of the stimulus funds may be lost to fraud, waste and abuse. Typical examples of what Coburn saw as wasteful stimulus projects included:
- $15 million for “shovel-ready” repairs to little-used bridges in rural Wisconsin, which were given priority over widely used bridges that are structurally deficient.
- $800,000 for the little-used John Murtha Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to repave a back-up runway. This “Airport for Nobody” has already received tens of millions in taxpayer dollars.
- $3.4 million for a wildlife “eco-passage” in Florida to take animals safely under a busy roadway.
- $2 million for a Nevada non-profit that will conduct a weatherization contract, after recently being fired for the same type of work.
- $1.15 million for the installation of a new guardrail for the non-existent Optima Lake in Oklahoma. (In a rare break for taxpayers, the Army Corps of Engineers has since announced that the project is “not going forward.”)
And that’s not all. Some 622 projects worth $880 million were found in the CAGW analysis of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010. In the stack of funding proposals was one for Senate appropriator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for the Vermont Biofuels Initiative. According to an article in the Economist, the International Council for Science concluded that “the production of biofuels has aggravated rather than ameliorated global warming.” Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.VA) expects $1.25 million for research into the impact of coal liquidification in China. (Sheer expense aside, one would think the issue would be more pertinent in Byrd’s own coal-mining state.) And no discussion of earmarks would be complete without mention of John Murtha (D-PA), Congress’s pork-barrel champion. As chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Murtha is seeking funding for 23 programs worth $90 million.
For all his pork-raising prowess, Murtha faces stiff competition from departments like the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Committee, known informally as (THUD), which is seeking around $584 million worth of appropriations for 2010. In our time of gargantuan federal spending and threats from abroad, $2.48 million is expected from Subcommittee Chair John Olver (D-Mass.) for seven museum projects. Among them is the so-called Arcadia Players Concert; $1.35 million more will go for theatre projects; and another $250,000 for something called the Wolf Trap Performing Arts multi-use trail.
In the Senate Financial Services and General Government appropriations Committee, the most pork-friendly member is the appropriations subcommittee chairman and the number-two man in the Senate majority, Dick Durbin (D-Il.). Durbin is currently calling for nine projects costing $4.3 million. Some $400,000 of the Durbin gifts would go to Western Illinois University Small Business Development Center, whose website lists a faculty of one person.
Then there are the oddities. The CAGW’s preliminary analysis of the Senate version of the 2010 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and related agencies Appropriations Act turned up $220.7 million in spending. Among the outstanding earmarks was $1 million for Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for, of all things, Morman crickets in Nevada and $4.8 million for research on wood use. Most taxpayers can tell them that wood is, among other things, the source of those 1,000-plus page bills Congress keeps passing and which no one has time to read.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D.N.Y) put in for $400,000 for Jazz programs at Lincoln Center, which, according to CAGW, already has a balance of $198 million. The analysis of the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriation Act includes $4 million for Golden Gate National Recreational Area, the centerpiece of which is the former penitentiary, Alcatraz. Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) wants $1.2 million for 600,000 rat traps. Aloha, at $2 a rat.
Strangest of all are the pork projects that no one – including their intended beneficiaries --- seems to want. Thus the town of Union, New York, is encouraged to spend a $578,000 grant it did not request for a homelessness problem it claims it does not have. Similarly, some $560 million was stuck in the appropriations for the Joint Strike Fighter alternative engine program – this despite the fact that the Pentagon does not want it. More bizarrely still, some 10,000 deceased individuals received stimulus checks. (The Social Security Administration blames a tough deadline.)
Don’t look to President Obama to put an end to the increasingly audacious spending projects. Peter Orszag, the White House Director of the Office of Management and Budget, told ABC News March 1 that as Obama prepared to sign the earmark-laden spending bill this spring, he saw it as “last year’s business,” not his. Never mind that the bill had been introduced and debated in Obama’s reign and had funding for Obama priorities.
It is true that during the presidential campaign Obama promised to pore through spending bills “line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.” On his account, at least, he has been faithful to that pledge. When the $787 billion stimulus package became law February 17, the president said that there were no pork projects and earmarks in the bill. “I know lots of folks out there have been saying, ‘Oh, this is pork, and this is money that’s going to be wasted,” the president said. “Understand, this bill does not have a single earmark in it.” A wealth of evidence, and taxpayer dollars, suggests otherwise.
That Obama has violated a pledge to cut earmarks should not be surprising. After all, Obama as Senator in 2008 racked up 53 earmarks totaling $97.4 million.
But the fact that Congress has continued to spend wastefully at a time of steeply rising debt and an economic recession makes the president’s laissez-faire approach to the pork-filled free-for-all that much more troubling.